In 2007, Asian Americans made the nation laugh, cry, and feel inspired. They also made fellow Asian Americans cringe. Here's why.
APA looks behind the spotlight to uncover some of the behind-the-scenes talents we admired in 2007.
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Talk around town is that this year's AFI Fest was the festival's best edition in years. Its Asian and Asian American selections were no exception.
dir: Lee Chang-dong
While I appreciate Lee Chang-dong's contributions to Korean cinema as the country's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003-04, seeing Secret Sunshine, his first film since 2002, has me wondering what cinematic marvels have been denied us in the years of his absence from the director's chair. Lee is for my money the greatest Korean director of the new Korean cinema, and Secret Sunshine picks up right where he left off, continuing (even elevating) his interest in clinical psychologies, as evidenced in his last film, Oasis. As with that film, Secret Sunshine is successful because of the performance by the central actress; this time it's from the Cannes-winning Jeon Do-yeon, who brings every conceivable human emotion to her character, a recent widow who moves with her young son to the hometown of her late husband. Where Secret Sunshine exceeds even the accomplishment of Oasis is in its brutal honesty. Many films center on loss, but few can fuse melodrama with wisdom without coming off as self-righteous. Secret Sunshine alternates between comedy (primarily through co-star Song Kang-ho), cuteness (especially through the little boy), redemption (religion becomes a major theme), and shock (of which there are many), but never does it feel pre-determined or orchestrated, preferring to let the searing scenes play out to the rhythms of everyday life. With this utmost naturalism, Lee Chang-dong exposes the dramatic emptiness of something like Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which Secret Sunshine surprisingly echoes. --Brian Hu
dir: Gregg Araki
Since his "Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy" (Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere), an Araki film has become associated with adjectives like provocative, fearless, reckless, even nihilistic. His last feature Mysterious Skin tackled child abuse, gay prostitution, and alien abduction, while 1992's The Living End is labeled in the credits as "An Irresponsible Movie by Gregg Araki." Smiley Face is a light-hearted departure from Araki's previous filmography, but arguably just as thought-provoking. Should a girl bend one's moral compass and sell the accidentally-stolen first-edition Communist Manifesto on ebay in order to get enough money to buy the weed to remake her roommate's sci-fi convention pot cupcakes she accidentally devoured -- so that he doesn't get extra pissed at her because it looks like she's also not going to be able to pay their power bill on time? Wait, no... sorry I messed that up. The money is for paying back Adam Brody, the tattooed, dread-locked Venice drug dealer, who might steal her new too-amazing-for-words bed... and something about a skull fucker? Dylan Haggerty wrote the magic script. Gregg Araki makes us all feel high. John Cho is scruffy. The Office's John Krasinski is a nerd-in-love-with-a-stoner-chick who sometimes has mouth spasms. And Anna Faris can hold an audience's attention for an impressively long time while only making one facial expression (See above). That's talent. Plus it's worth mentioning that the film might have the best opening credits ever. --Ada Tseng
Flight of the Red Balloon
dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Toward the end of Hou Hsiao-hsien's majestic Flight of the Red Balloon, the film gives us a clue for unlocking the film's simple beauty. We see Félix Vallotton's plein air delight "The Ball" displayed at the Museé d'Orsay, which commissioned the film. In front of the painting is a group of children, with each boy and girl quick to comment on the scene, tenderly engaging with the painting with a surprising eagerness. That wide-eyed enchantment with the simple pleasures of art is precisely how Hou's film invites its viewers to participate. Notice the sapphire light peering into the kitchen. Contemplate the noble sculpture adorning the garden gate. Listen to the drumming notes of a blind man tuning a piano. Follow the red balloon as it soars by subways and takes to the sky. One can call it the gaze of the child, discovering the world for the first time. Or one can call it the fascination of the outsider: too modest in his ignorance to comment on the scene, but too fixated on its sensual pleasures to let it get away. Indeed, as in his equally brilliant Cafe Lumiere, Hou has perfected the aesthetics of the globetrotter, using his trademark long takes and long shots to preserve the integrity of the world he encounters. Because we see the world in unbroken set-pieces, because we see (and hear and feel) Juliette Binoche and son and housekeeper go about their days with an organic wholeness, we never feel the weight of the "touristic gaze" so problematic in any cross-cultural enterprise. But in the end, we're not thankful for Hou's politeness, but for the boldness of his affection for everyday spaces and sounds. --Brian Hu
dir: Li Yang
Li Yang's Blind Mountain, the second installment in a trilogy following his critically-acclaimed freshman effort, Blind Shaft (2003), marks the emergence of a new phase in contemporary Chinese cinema. Extending his earlier work on rural China's mining industry, Li takes as his focus female sex slavery to further his critique of rural life. Both socially-critical and narrative-driven, the film moves beyond portrayals of the countryside by directors like Zhang Yimou. In tone and form, the film is a mix of early Chinese socialist realist films, and Zhang's Ju Dou, with strong suggestions of Lars Von Trier's Dogville. Li renders, without ceremony or judgment, the multi-faceted rural cultural world which fosters continued human rights abuse in China. Shot entirely on location with local actors playing themselves, Blind Mountain carries a pungent sting of realism tempered by compassion -- qualities resulting from the film's graceful honesty. Despite being set around a specific series of events in the 1990s, the film speaks to contemporary debates on China's rural development. While Blind Mountain will be released in different versions to domestic Chinese and foreign audiences (including Hong Kong), the sheer existence of the film's sharply critical foreign version (the version shown at AFI Fest) points to a movement toward greater openness in Chinese filmmaking. --Aynne Kokas
dir: Loo Zihan and Kan Lume
A dialogue-free and nearly black-and-white film about an affair between a teacher and his student, plus the student's mother's despair of losing emotional connection to her son, all presented in a series of one-shot, one-scene takes à la Mizoguchi. That AFI Fest chose to screen it indicates this year's uncommonly eclectic Asian lineup, especially since the film was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival by the producers after state censors edited out scenes of homosexual and group sex. However, this shouldn't be the sole criteria to call it a great, or even good, film. Solos is a courageous film, yes, in all its intended emotional nudity, but the one-shot, one-scene structure ends up making it rather sterile. The most striking aspect is the extremely subtle use of color and black-and-white fading into each other that expresses the moods of desire, pleasure, jealousy, betrayal, and disappointment perhaps better than anything else. --Rowena Aquino
Funuke, Show some Love You Losers!
dir: Yoshida Daihachi
The "Funuke" of the title refers to the Funuke family, continuing the long line of highly dysfunctional but ultimately loveable and memorable families living in the Japanese countryside. Well, maybe just dysfunctional. The first thirty seconds set the visual pace and punch of the rest of the movie as the parents die a horrible, bloody death (of course!), which then forces into play the violent dynamics between the three surviving children. "Parasitic" is the best word to describe them. Kiyomi works through the trauma of seeing her parents die and being abused by her older sister Sumika by creating a frenetic manga version of Sumika's attempts to become an established/respected actress; half-brother Shinji tries to satisfy Sumika's promise of loving no one else and in the process abuses his hyperkinetic caricature of a Japanese wife, Machiko; Sumika steps on everyone to pursue an acting career; and Machiko is stepped on by everyone in the pursuit of her own domestic career. Nagasaku Hiromi's performance as Machiko must be singled out here for keeping the film interesting, if not downright hilarious, during moments where you cease to care about the others as they fall flat as they try to attempt to show some love -- regardless of director Yoshida's experienced music video/advertising handling of images. Dysfunctional and "losers" tag fulfilled, but outside of Machiko and the half-expected plot twist in the end, there's little to make the characters or the film loveable and memorable in the way, say, The Taste of Tea's peculiar family lingers with you after the credits. Perhaps the comparison isn't fair, but from the point of view of Funuke, it says enough. --Rowena Aquino
dir: Diao Yinan
Diao Yinan's bleak, contemplative Night Train -- Diao's follow-up to the award-winning Uniform -- examines a woman desperately trying to break out of her own isolation. By day, Wu Hongyan (played by Dan Liu) is a court bailiff, requiring emotionless professionalism as she deals with female inmates being tried for murder. By night, she alternates between awkward outings with suitors and nights alone in her apartment, listening enviously to the aggressive sounds of her salacious neighbor's lovemaking. Cast in cold greys and blues amidst wide shots of industrial China, Wu Hongyan comes across as introspective and complicated, but not altogether compelling -- much like the film itself. Darker turns seem arbitrary; critical twists of fate appear inauthentic and forced. Wu's hasty tryst and subsequent emotional attachment to the cryptic, mentally instable Li Jun (Dao Qi) show us less about the raw nature of loneliness and more about a storyteller's failure to deliver convincing situations. --Ada Tseng
Please Vote for Me
dir: Weijun Chen
Three third-graders in China's Wuhan Province have one goal in mind: to win the votes of their classmates by any means possible in the first democratic election for class monitor. Director Weijun Chen's charming and insightful documentary, Please Vote for Me conducts an experiment in democracy that explores the effects of China's one-child policy and reminds audiences that communism is already a palpable reality amongsts eight years-olds in mainland China. Each of the three candidates has a unique charisma about them: Cheng Cheng is the loud-mouthed funnyman determined to knock his competitors speechless; Xu Xiaofei is the only girl in the election, and represents the emotional sensitiveness that comes as a result of political manipulation; and Luo Lei is the stern disciplinarian who is infamous for his belligerent nature. But their politicking is not complete without the mentoring of their parents who literally serve as advisors, speech writers, and choreographers in this interplay of heated competition. Colored with pastels of bright blue and red, Chen's film offers comedy, drama, and thought-provoking discussion all in less than an hour, and dares to ask the question: could democracy ever work in contemporary China? --LiAnn Ishizuka
dir: Khavn de la Cruz
This short film consists of nothing but clips of Khavn's filmmaker colleague Lav Diaz's film Batang West Side (Young West Side, hence Khavn's title). But how is a five-hour film shortened to a six-minute short? Simple: all the footage -- chosen with the help of Diaz himself -- is fast-forwarded. At times interspersed with the fast-forwarded footage are quotes that reconfigure the film's dialogue and subjects. I should add that the footage used for this short was from a pirated copy of Diaz's original film. Not only does the short wittily call into question the extreme long format of Diaz's films (some of which reach up to nine to ten hours), the patient viewing investment required and what kind of venues you could actually indulge in such patience and engagement, but also the kind of editing performed at the level of pirate distribution. Think of it as the digital format of the multiple versions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Maybe. --Rowena Aquino
Other AFI Fest 2007 films, reviewed previously by Asia Pacific Arts:
Date Posted: 11/16/2007